The infringing ads (viewable here) both involved photographs of a female model in a skirt, with her buttocks and/or crotch on show but upper body obscured. One of the photos was displayed on the retailer's website and the other on its UK Instagram page. The ads sparked considerable outrage on social media and although they were removed by the company, the ASA investigated following two complaints that the ads were offensive and irresponsible on the grounds that "they were overtly sexual and inappropriate for a skirt advertised as school-wear".
In its defence, American Apparel argued that the model was 30 years old and was "happy, relaxed and confident...and not portrayed in a manner which was vulnerable, negative or exploitative". It also argued that the ads were not displayed in print or conventional media and that because the brand was well known for its provocative images and ads, the fans and customers who followed the company's social media pages and accessed the website had 'opted in' to see images consistent with its branding.
However, the ASA considered that the pose of the model meant that "the focus was on her buttocks and groin rather than the skirt" and that the images imitated voyeuristic 'up-skirt' shots which "had the potential to normalize sexual predatory behaviour". The ASA therefore considered the images to objectify women and were "sexist and likely to cause serious and widespread offence...irrespective of whether consumers had 'opted in' to marketing communications". In addition, the obstruction of the model's face meant that it was impossible to determine her age and, given that the ad was associated with the retailer's "School Days" and "Back to School" ranges, "it was likely that those who viewed them would understand that the model was, or intended to appear to be, a schoolgirl". The ASA therefore concluded that the ads "had the effect of inappropriately sexualizing school-age girls and were therefore offensive and irresponsible for that reason too".
As well as banning the ads from re-appearing in their current form, the ASA has also warned American Apparel to ensure that its future advertising "was prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society".